Preview & Chat: The Minnesota Timberwolves

Darius Soriano —  January 29, 2012

Records: Lakers 11-9 (9th in West); T’Wolves 9-10 (11th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 102.3 (16th in NBA); T’Wolves 102.7 (15th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.8 (11th in NBA); T’Wolves 101.0 (13th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
T’Wolves: Luke Ridnour, Ricky Rubio, Wesley Johnson, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Derrick Caracter (out); T’Wolves: J.J. Barrea (out), Malcom Lee (out), Darko Milicic (questionable), Anthony Tolliver (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers continued their road woes with a loss to the Bucks and with that defeat a couple of disturbing trends continued. First, they simply perform much worse on the road than at home. And while some of this has to do with opponent (Miami, Portland, Denver, Orlando, and the Clippers are some of the better teams in the league) a lot is really about player performance. Kobe, Gasol, Fisher and MWP all play at or above their home standards when away from Staples. However, Bynum and Barnes and several other bench players all see a dip on production. Yes, it’s harder to rely on role players on the road but while Barnes fits into the category, Bynum does not. Plus, both are starters and need to provide consistent production regardless of where the game is played.

Second, as mentioned in the Bucks recap, the Lakers’ defense is slipping quickly. Since the Pacers game on 1/22 the Lakers have fell from 6th to 11th in defensive efficiency. They’re allowing over a point and a half more per 100 possessions which is a pretty steep fall in only a week. They’re not rotating well to shooters, are allowing penetration much too easily, and aren’t hustling back in transition and it’s not only showing in games but statistically as well. It’s no wonder this team can’t put together wins – their offense isn’t showing enough improvement and their defense is slipping quickly. Can’t be a successful team when those two things are true.

The T’Wolves Coming in: The Wolves have won 5 of their last 7 while toppling some pretty good teams. On their hit list are the Clippers, Mavericks, and Spurs while also taking out the Pistons and Hornets (who, admittedly, aren’t anywhere near “good”). And while they’re not yet a consistent team, they are dangerous when they’re able to play their style of ball and find their rhythm.

They’re led by two of the better young players in the league in Kevin Love and rookie sensation Ricky Rubio. Love came into this season in the best shape of his life and pretty much began this year where last season left off. He’s scoring well, still grabbing rebounds at an elite level, and even added a bit of a post game to compliment his long range shooting. People are now calling him the best PF in the league – something that I’m not quite on board with due to his average defense – and with the production he’s offering it’s not that far fetched.

Rubio, meanwhile, is showing what all the hype was about when he was drafted. He’s already a floor general and makes at least one (and usually more) wow play a night either hitting a teammate with a ridiculous pass or misleading the opposition with a deceptive play that frees himself up for a shot at the rim. He’s also proven to be an above average defender, able to pressure the ball full court and disrupt half court sets by instinctively getting into passing lanes or knowing when to dig down on post players to pick up steals. Right now his stats compare favorably to a young Jason Kidd and if you’ve seen him play, it’s actually an apt comparison. He simply shows off tremendous basketball instincts and knows how to manipulate the flow of the game like only some of the best can. Obviously he has a long way to go before he’s a complete player, but he’s making an impact on the Wolves.

Also deserving credit for the success of this team is Rick Adelman. Many will remember him as the coach they wanted the Lakers to hire before Mike Brown was inked last Spring. Well, Adelman has shown why he was a coveted hire by getting this team to defend better while instilling structure on offense that was sorely lacking last season under our old pal Kurt Rambis. Adelman’s done what is seemingly impossible, he’s set them free to play an open game while also reining in a lot of their bad habits and reinforced that a team game is what’s needed to win games. So far, he’s got them lapping it up like a hungry kitten at the milk bowl and the results speak for themselves. Sure, they’re not yet a playoff team, but this franchise has been a perennial sub 20 game winner. To have already put up 9 victories in their first 19 games speaks volumes about the job Adelman is doing. (I’ll now give all of you that wanted Rick to coach the Lakers a second compose yourself so you can finish the preview.)

T’Wolves Blogs: Go read A Wolf Among Wolves for great insight and analysis, as well as some great writing. It’s an excellent site.

Keys to game: I expect the Wolves to have watched last night’s Lakers/Bucks tape and come to some simple conclusions. First is that the Lakers struggled with ball pressure so he’ll enlist his guards and big men to pressure the ball anytime the Lakers hold it in order to set up an offensive action. Second, the Lakers looked old and tired last night and considering Kobe played 42 minutes, Pau played 39, and Bynum played 36, attacking them in transition and running them ragged with P&R’s and quick passes should be their strategy on defense.

Should both these things prove to be the case, the Lakers will need to be better than they were last night in recognizing the ball pressure and attacking quicker rather than clutching the ball waiting for an action to develop. Too many times last night Pau (or Murphy or McRoberts) got caught holding the ball up high looking for a cutter to break free curling around a screen all while a Buck harassed them and made the eventual pass too difficult. However, when Pau simply put his head down and attacked the rim off the dribble without waiting for a play to develop, good things happened. The Lakers need more of that and less waiting.

And this goes for all the Lakers, not just Pau or the big at the high post. Kobe needs to start attacking faster as well. All too often he too will stand at the elbow, jab stepping away and burning precious seconds off the shot clock. And while his triple threat is a dangerous part of his arsenal, he needs to make his moves faster so he’s not taking contested jumpers with under 5 seconds on the shot clock so frequently. As for the other Lakers, they need to make quicker decisions on where they’re going with the ball and then move after they pass. Right now guys are just standing around, literally in the same place for 10 seconds on a possession. Getting a bit more movement, even if it’s just sliding up and down the sideline into open space would do a lot for a team that is just too stagnant lately.

Defensively, the Lakers will get no reprieve from seeing a steady diet of P&R’s. Both Rubio and Ridnour run this action well and both will attack relentlessly when handling the ball, though in different ways. Ridnour will turn the corner and either shoot the open jumper or get into the lane where he’ll either finish or look to a shooter spacing in the corner or kick the ball out to the popping big man (usually Love) after the screen was set. So, the Lakers must treat Ridnour like a scorer and aggressively hedge on him to make him pull his dribble back and either give up the ball or reset the offense. Rubio, though, will attack via the pass using his size and instincts to throw skip passes over the top of rotating defenders and hitting his shooters in either corner. After making that pass, he’ll fake that pass and hit the roll man for an easy lay in. After that, he’ll act like he’s passing and then turn the corner and get a lay in for himself. Again, he’s savvy beyond his years and the Lakers will need to adjust. My suggestion would be giving Rubio the Rondo treatment by going under screens and making him either shoot his own jumper or make passes into crowded spaces because the defense isn’t forced to rotate. This approach makes even more sense if Kobe is guarding him.

Let’s forget strategy for a second, though. Against the Clippers I asked that the team simply play harder and ultimately that happened with a win ensuing. I asked for the same thing against the Bucks, it did not happen and a loss resulted. Tonight, I ask for the same and we’ll see what happens but what’s become clear is that the Lakers need to be an effort team if they’re to win games. They can no longer out-talent the opposition, coasting for long stretches and still expect to win. Those days are over. If they come out and play hard, they can win this game. Even if they don’t execute great, make mistakes, or have their sets fall apart. If they don’t play hard, though, they have no chance. The choice is theirs.

Where you can watch: 4:00 start time on KCAL. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.

Darius Soriano

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